Not just sex and rights: Professor uncovers gay liberation’s rich cultural history
The gay liberation movement of the 1970s was all about sex and politics.
Except that it wasn’t, says history professor James Downs.
“That’s the story we always get, but gay liberation was really an intellectual revolution,” Downs says. “It was about gay people building their own culture.”
In his newest book, Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation, Downs taps treasure troves of archival records from LGBT community centers in major cities to relay the stories of gay people who managed to create a community in a world where they were deemed outsiders.
Downs unveils a rich cultural history and weaves a narrative about gay people who found one another through religious groups like the Metropolitan Community Church; in the pages of the Body Politic, a newspaper that encouraged its readers to think of their sexuality as a political identity; at the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, the hub of gay literary life in New York City; and in theaters showing “Gay American History,” a play that brought to the surface the enduring problem of gay oppression.
“A lot of gay people in the 1970s weren’t trying to ‘get accepted’ by the state and win the favor of those in power. They didn’t want to be discriminated against, of course, but for the most part, they were more interested in creating a culture of their own, with their own churches, newspapers and neighborhoods,” Downs says.
One of the heroes of Stand By Me is Craig Rodwell, founder of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore. Downs poured through Rodwell’s papers, which were donated upon his death to the New York Public Library, to piece together the story of the man who turned gay culture into a literary genre.
“The bookstore wasn’t just a way to make cash. It was a political project to create a gay identity,” Downs says, adding that Rodwell had a big influence on gay business people in Greenwich Village and would often address issues of concern to gay people in his personal letters. In April, New Republic published an excerpt from Stand By Me about Rodwell.
In his research for the book, Downs also uncovered a concerted effort by gay media and religious leaders to collect poetry from gay prisoners, the results of which paint a vivid picture of both life in prison and the emotional experience of being gay.
“There was this whole campaign by people who were saying to these prisoners, ‘We want you to be a part of our culture. Our culture is not just dancing at Studio 54 or marching in a parade. Our culture is also literary,’” Downs says.
In a review of Stand By Me, the San Francisco Chronicle says Downs “interrogates the cultural, political and importantly, religious landscape of American gay liberation, masterfully demystifying the many myths that continue to frame the way we understand the movement,” while the Boston Globe says Downs “capably blends authority and warmth in this thoughtful reexamination of an era.”
Downs is currently an Andrew W. Mellon New Directions fellow at Harvard University and associate professor of history and American studies at Connecticut College. He is the editor of Taking Back the Academy: History of Activism and Why We Write: The Politics and Practice of Writing for Social Change, as well as the author of Sick From Freedom: African American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction.